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Awestruck: Bees Stop Flying During the Eclipse

Are bees just as intrigued by the solar eclipse as we are? Recently released data from the 2017 eclipse shows that honey bees across North America completely stopped flying as the moon passed over the sun. Honey bees are an integral part of our ecosystem and understanding their behaviour is key in keeping crops pollinated and honey flowing. With this in mind, researchers from the University of Missouri, Lincoln University, and Willamette University teamed up to find out why they might stop everything they're doing during the eclipse.

Animals seem to react in unpredictable ways during natural phenomena: earthquakes, hurricanes and plain old thunderstorms are known to get pets and wildlife riled up in anticipation, but what about eclipses? Public accounts of the 1932 eclipse suggest that everything from crickets to toads act strangely, but these claims have little actual research to back them up. In hopes of collecting more data, scientists used last year's eclipse as an opportunity to find out more about the reactions of honey bees in particular.

In the weeks before the total solar eclipse on August 21st, 2017, scientists worked with communities across the United States to set up microphones, thermometers, and light-sensors in flower patches that honeybees frequently visited. With nice weather at most of the test sites and bees buzzing happily as they moved from flower to flower, the day of the eclipse started like any other. If we listen to the audio recorded in the moments leading up to the eclipse, we wouldn't expect that anything was amiss, but as the moon passed completely over the sun, casting a cool shadow over the world, we hear nothing but an eerie silence among the flowers. The soft buzzing noise that we all associate with bees completely disappeared during this moment of totality, almost as if a little switch has been hit on the bees to turn them off. Then, just as quickly as they stopped, the sun peeked its way out from behind the moon and the bees began flying again. One has to wonder what exactly is happening here.

Student-created comics documenting predictions about bee behaviour during the eclipse

Comics created by elementary students involved in the citizen science side of the project. Including people from the community helps to spread both knowledge about science as well as a passion for it, and is being used by more and more researchers to garner awareness, support, and help

[From original paper, see "Further Reading" section]

While it was originally thought that temperature might play a role in how much the bees were flying during the eclipse, taking a look at the data collected near where the microphones were placed showed that the change in light was definitely what causes the bees to stop flying: the stopping and starting of their flight was right on time with the shadow of the moon, but did not change very much with temperature changes throughout the day and during the eclipse itself.

There are very few, if any, bee species that forage at night, so the bees were completely unprepared to fly during the darkness of the total eclipse. This may be why bees were heard flying a lot slower as the sky was dim before and after the eclipse: the same way that people will walk slower in the dark to avoid tripping or bumping into things, the bees flew slower to avoid flying into things.

This finding has not only helped us understand one reason why animals might act strangely during natural phenomena like solar eclipses, which is interesting in and of itself, but has also provided an important insight into the behaviour of honey bees, which are vital to our world as we know it. The role of the public in studies like this also demonstrates the importance of citizen science in the ever-evolving field of science research. Maybe the next time you know there is a storm coming, you can do some of your own scientific research!

Further Reading:

Cover Image:

#hymenoptera #behaviour #research #citizenscience

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